“What if we talked politics a little?” By Bruno Latour

“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”

Video of my presentations at the 10th International Whitehead Conference on Friday (6/5) and Saturday (6/6)

Conference website.


Friday, June 5th at 4:45pm:
Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse


Saturday June 6th at 2:30pm:
Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

I have a lot to say about some of the questions that came up during the discussion (~58 minutes into the video), especially the issues that Terrence Deacon and Stu Kauffman brought up about life’s pervasiveness in the universe and whether “play” might exist in the non-biological world. I’ll be posting about these questions in the next few days…

[Update 6/11: Stu K. and I had breakfast the day after my talk to discuss the idea of a “physics of play.” Such a physics becomes possible given the panexperientialist basis of Whitehead’s ontology. I’m hoping we can co-author a paper on this… Stay tuned.]

Pluralistic Panpsychism and Mystical Experience: a response to Kastrup (part 2 of 2)

[This is part 2 of my response to Bernardo Kastrup; part 1 is here].

Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.

Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.

My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.

I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:

The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)

The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.

In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?

I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below:

Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse (draft)

The following was an early draft of a talk I gave in my own track at the Whitehead/Ecological Civilization conference in Claremont, CA. For video of the actual talk, click HERECosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse.001

This track has been given the task of re-imagining late modernity, and in particular, of re-imagining what John Cobb has called late modernity’s reductive monism. In my talk today, I want to try sketch a cosmopolitical alternative to late modernity’s reductive monism as part of an attempt to begin preparing us, at least in the realm of ideas and imagination, for a ecological civilization to come. My approach will not be systematic, but pluralistic. I aim to sketch an alternative to modernity by drawing out the metaphysical possibilities opened up by ontological pluralism. My method is one of philosophical “assemblage,” which Whitehead suggests should precede the stage of careful systematization. System comes later, after the owl of Minerva has flown (as Hegel has suggested), when we have time for careful reflection about details. Right now, matters are rather urgent and there is no time to fill in all the details. This is philosophy in a time of emergency. An old story is dying, and we need as many hints about the new one emerging as we can manage. It’s my hope that a people to come will find more room to breathe in the processual pluriverse I’ll attempt to sketch than modern people have found in their incoherently bifurcated and so alienating picture of a materialistic universe.

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I will draw, of course, on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the man of the hour. But also on William James, one of Whitehead’s most important influences. In addition I will build on the work of the contemporary French Whiteheadians Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

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Let’s begin by unpacking the title of the track a bit. To better grasp the metaphysical underpinnings of “late modernity,” maybe its best to start by comparing it with “early modernity.” Early modernity was dualistic: on one side of the ontological divide were rational subjects, who by freely entering into a social contract, became citizens in a democratic state; on the other side were mechanical objects, which by obeying universal causal laws, operated as part of a deterministic nature. Human society on one side, nonhuman nature on the other. Modernity thus began with a twin mission, what Latour refers to as the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern, 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters and owners of nature.

So what has happened? Why did late modernity become monistic, as Cobb describes it? For one thing, the 19th century brought the discoveries of geological deep time and evolutionary theory, both of which placed the human/nature dualism of the 17th century on far shakier ground. A metaphysical decision was made to reduce human beings to one side of the former ontological dualism, and so we have increasingly been understood as only a more sophisticated form of biological machine. The alternative way of establishing a human/nature continuity would have been to re-imagine nature as, like us, in some sense ensouled (an alternative we will explore momentarily).

Even more important in the collapse of dualism into monism, however, was the 20th century failure of communism. What many would consider to be our greatest hope of ending exploitation of humans by humans was outlasted by capitalism, which has since given up on modernity’s emancipatory mission and doubled down on domination. The failure of communism, neoliberal capitalists say, showed once and for all that human nature is basically selfish. Capitalists argue that domination and mastery of both human labor and natural resources through a kind of market monism is our only hope for an albeit quasi-civilized existence. Only the invisible hand of the market can assure the stability of civilization. Everything from politics to religion to education to healthcare should be given over to the free market, as though no other form of self-organization could help order our societies. As the Jamesian political scientist Kennan Ferguson describes it in his book Politics in the Pluriverse, late modernity brought a “shift in political science toward representing political actors as economic consumers. The increasing economism of political science has meant that many of the issues of interest to political philosophers–sovereignty, legitimacy, representation–have been recast as potential choices in a marketplace of ideologies, where voter/consumers are peddled competing brand names” (27). What’s clear is that the 20th century only led modernity to replace one war with another, the Cold War for the Warming War. Capitalism no longer faces another human enemy. It is now at war with Gaia.

As Latour says, “By seeking to orient man’s exploitation of man toward an exploitation of nature by man, capitalism has magnified both beyond measure” (Modern, 8). Our situation as late modern people is stated starkly by Latour: “between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose” (AIME, 8).

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Ecologizing our civilization will require re-imagining the philosophical assumptions underlying the modern worldview. “A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” I think I speak for all of us in this track, and perhaps for this entire conference, when I defend the simple thesis that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (Modes of Thought, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. Late modern market monism—by reducing earth to, at best a resource, and at worst a trash bin, and by reducing human beings to cogs in a technocapitalist profit machine—has gone even further, since it not only leaves no room for life, it actively seeks to exterminate it. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of modern philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die. Both dualism and monism have failed us. At this point, as Latour puts it, “we have to fight trouble with trouble, counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine” (AIME, 22). I’m following Whitehead, James, Latour, and Stengers in proposing an alternative, more ecological metaphysical scheme.

Ontological pluralism is easy to define, but not as easy to understand. It is the metaphysical position which suggests that there are more than one, or two (or three, or any finite number…), of ways of being. Reality is the ongoing composition of a multiplicity of more or less overlapping modes of existence. We are so used to thinking of reality being unified, a finished One, that the possibility of its becoming many may at first seem like a terrifying prospect. To the extent that modern inheritors of the liberal tradition really understand it’s implications, it should be terrifying, since it dissolves all our hubristic certainties about ourselves and the world, about who and where we think we are. Part of the rationale behind the modern bifurcation of nature is that defining nature or matter as inert, dead stuff helped us establish our own identity as free agents. To challenge the inertness of nature, to recognize its agency, is also to challenge liberal notions of individual human freedom. Challenging these notions does not mean dismissing them–we are agents, too; but it does mean re-imagining the very foundations of individual identity and social contract-based politics.

There are less radical forms of pluralism, like cultural relativism or worldview pluralism. Everybody knows there are other ways of knowing, other cultural practices with their own psychological and even perceptual ways of representing reality; moderns accept that there are multiple views of the world. But what nobody doubts is that one world underlies all the views that humans can have of it. Many views, one world; many cultures, one Nature.

Ontological pluralism is not multiculturalism, but multinaturalism. Multiculturalism, as Latour points out, is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, they were also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Their Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted them access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections and superstitions.  Moderns sent their anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same universal laws belonging to the same physical nature must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to have discovered a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Latour describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Whitehead’s self-entitled “philosophy of organism” provides us with an example of a fully ecologized philosophy. Multinaturalism means neither science nor the universe it purports to study are ready-made unified wholes. There are as many sciences as there are natures. From a pluralist perspective, if wholeness is to exist, it must first be constructed and thereafter constantly maintained. Unity does not exist in advance of such composition. If any science qualifies as the science of “wholes”—and in a pluralist ontology, there are many wholes, not just One—it is ecology, which traditionally has been defined as the study of the relationship between organisms and environments. But in Whitehead’s scheme, the concept of an “environment” cannot just be taken for granted as a fixed, inorganic background. The environment is not, as Latour put it in his Gifford lectures on Gaia, “a mere frame devoid of any agency.” There is no Environment, there are only ever communities of other organisms. In an ontology of organism, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science.

An ontology of organism opens us to the possibility of cosmopolitics, a concept originally developed by Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics has been articulated as a protest against what Whitehead calls “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of appearance and reality, experience and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things: “Everything perceived is in nature,” and everything in nature perceives. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it.

Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Cosmopolitics calls upon us to recognize that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community.

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If modernity has culminated in the bifurcation of mononaturalist Science and multiculturalist politics, then the emergence of a nonmodern, ecological and so ontologically pluralistic civilization will require the reinvention of both. Not only must ecology replace physics at the foundations of the natural sciences, it must replace economics at the foundations of the social sciences, as well.

Cosmopolitics is an attempt to do just that, to re-imagine scientific practices in more democratic terms, and to re-imagine politics in a way that acknowledges the need to invent ways of coexisting—not just with people of our own color, country, or culture, not even just with other humans—but with all earth’s creatures. To democratize science doesn’t mean facts should be determined by popular opinion; rather, it means recognizing that scientific activity is always undertaken upon a landscape shaped by socioeconomic interests and fraught with political implications. Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of buiding alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances; it is not, despite modern epistemic pretenses, the product of an objectifying gaze from nowhere. Stengers points out the tendency many modern scientists and technologists have to “defer to ‘politics’ decisions that would have to be made about the use of data and techniques produced in new labs: that use will be whatever ‘we’ decide it should be. But this ‘we,’ purely human and apparently decisional, will intervene in a situation that will already be saturated with decisions made in the name of technique, science, and rationality. Politicians will demand that experts tell them who ‘we’ are from the scientific point of view.” [personal example with Marvin Minsky from 2007; another example is Francis Collins and Obama announcing the Brain Initiative].

Whereas early modern dualism and late modern monism alike produced “expert” scientists who claimed to have unmasked with objective certainty a truth hidden from common sense experience, pluralism is an intrinsically diplomatic ontology.

The pluralist responds to encounters with others under the assumption that reality is an ongoing and open-ended “geostorical adventure” of “planetary negotiation,” which is to say it is always in-the-making and never at rest in the possession of a isolated heroic knower. The ontological pluralist doesn’t falsely align fetishized ideas of “Science,” “Rationality,” and “Objectivity” on one side and oppose them to “belief,” “custom,” and “illusion” on the other. Instead of in every case sending in “the experts” to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky. Cosmopolitics is not cosmopolitanism, not rooted in the search for some abstract sense of universal humanity. The notion of “human rights” may have functioned in a liberatory way in some cases, but just as often, argues Stengers, it has served as a way of disqualifying those whose unique ways of life fail to fit the universal mold. Stengers criticizes this modern attempt to politically unify all peoples through an all too abstract notion of “humanity.” Such an attempt moves too fast, pretending to achieve in advance what can only be accomplished at the end, after much negotiation. As Latour puts it, “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.”

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Stengers links the failed notion of human rights to “the curse of tolerance,” the idea that so long as you keep your differences private, we can learn to live together in public. In other words, so long as you don’t take your own cosmology seriously and are willing to accept the strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double-bind of modernity, then we can tolerate one another’s abstract “right” to exist. So long, of course, as you stay over there, in your own neighborhood, and don’t force me to deal with the dissonance of such a strangely bifurcated image of reality too directly. For this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences. If there is to be a future cosmopolitical civilization, it will no longer accept the dichotomy between public and private life. We will have found a way to meet the challenge of inventing a means of living together within the same extended community. We will all have become diplomats, willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside it.

So what is the take home of this assemblage of nonmodern Whiteheadian philosophical ideas? What is the relationship between his metaphysical scheme and the ecologization of our species, of our civilization?

How can he help us transform our cities from gas guzzling machines into creative contributors to life’s flourishing? How are we to convert his cosmological theory into a cultural and political practice that leads us home again, that allows us to remember that we are earthbound creatures inhabiting and transversing a plurality of interrelated places co-evolving at a multiplicity of speeds. We do not inhabit a unified space-time field determined by universal laws. We are not made of some fantastical stuff called “matter,” the most abstract, insensible, confused idea I’ve ever heard.  What I am suggesting is that Whitehead’s speculative cosmovision evokes an alternative form of consciousness, provoking a re-imagination of modern subjectivity; Whitehead heralds the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth, as Berry calls it, or geostory as Latour refers to it. Whitehead’s words work upon our souls like alchemical catalysts. His books are a psychedelic pharmacopoeia, a remedy for sick minds. He is a philosophical diplomat: he heals the divisions of our intellectual histories, not by rushing to unify them into a Single System, but by giving each perspective, each contrast, its place in a organic community of interrelated drops of experience somehow managing to hang together as a whole, not by necessity, by right, by divine fiat, but because of the persuasive allure of beauty freely calling all creatures toward harmony and order, toward cosmos.

The natural world, the universe, the cosmos, Nature, etc., is not something we can continue to imagine as apart from, other than, the human world, the polis, society. The cosmos is just as political as we are, just as much a society of agents vying with one another for power, for access to energy, to food, to sex, to status and attention. 

War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is” implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight for us to rest our heads on solid certainty. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. If anything is certain, it is that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on experiential reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are (or can be) effectual as agents, as participants in the makeup of reality.  

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One Substance,  a singular unified system. But what if there is not one reality? What if there are many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we humans are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality. For now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. In all our talk of a supposedly already finished nature, we neglect the living network of naturing natures going on all around and within us. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our capital projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an Earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

What are we to make of the metaphysical thesis of multiple worlds, multiple natures? This is not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. What if reality itself is made of perspectives, such that there is no underlying and pre-established unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer and return to. Instead of the monistic and dualistic substance ontologies of modernity, what would be the consequences of a nonmodern pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology? What would be its effects on our cosmopolitics (=our human attempt to compose a common world together with all the other creatures we inhabit this planet and universe with)? 

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Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for this post), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, moderns are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Modern Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted moderns access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath religious superstitions and cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until moderns came along. Modern Science sent its anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, modern Westerners also have their subjective quirks, their psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only they had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside their cultural idiosyncrasies (at least in the laboratory and law court) so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became their sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference. So for instance, some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza, etc. Global capitalism embraces the consumerist excesses of all religions equally. 

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, multicultural tolerance no longer seems possible. Westerners can no longer take seriously their attempts to force feed enlightened free market democracy to the rest of the world. If only the Rest would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. The modern West can no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our kind of person (racial, gender, age, ability, etc.) on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are deeper than “culture,” but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” “technology,” “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all those special activities which were supposed to make moderns superior by giving us access to a higher truth—it should be clear enough to everyone now that these are no less constructed, no less fragile and in need of constant re-investment by the human sociusthan what, for example, the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency, a war of worlds. The question is, what new order can emerge from our chaotic situation?

Latour again:

“Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our constructed identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but acceptance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship and commonality requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, that my very identity as a self is always constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and practice of techno-science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is awash in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged out of an eternal heaven; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of the organisms which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances of our chaosmos. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it or explain it away. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Overlord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through James’ each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism”

My track at this year’s International Whitehead Conference is titled “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism” and is situated within the umbrella section called “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose.” Other participants in my track include Elizabeth Allison, Sean Kelly, Richard Tarnas, and Brian Swimme. I hope to have the schedule and abstracts for everyone’s contributions posted by the end of the month.

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For my part, I want to articulate an alternative to modernization. Following Bruno Latour, I’ll call it ecologization. The tentative title for my talk is:

Panexperientialist Pluralism or Eliminativist Monism?: Towards the Ecologization of Philosophy

A brief summary of what I’d like to cover:

“A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” It is the assumption of this paper, and this entire conference, that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (MoT, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of such a philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die.

Thanks to Darwin and 160 years of the evolution of Evolutionary theory, it has been made abundantly clear that human beings were not dropped onto this planet from heaven, but instead share a genetic origin with every other species of organism on earth. We also share a destiny: Humans, like many other megafauna, are faced with imminent extinction. We are not, in fact, alienated from Nature. Our fortunes rise and fall with Hers (and She is not at all the unified, ahistorical, steady-state machine we have for several hundred years suspected). Given the severity of our situation, the Whiteheadian philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has provided us with an ultimatum: either continue the disastrous path of modernization, or change the course of civilization entirely by ecologizing the human endeavor.

Now that dualism has been largely discredited, many proponents of modernization are seeking philosophical justification by defending eliminativist or reductionist forms of materialistic monism. My paper will attempt to bring the ecologically oriented Whiteheadian alternative of panexperientialist pluralism into distinct relief by contrasting it with late modern eliminativist monism. Reductive monism is the confused result of the incoherent Modern Constitution that Latour so thoroughly critiqued and re-constructed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). In their rush to reductively naturalize everything in theory, eliminativists have neglected the extent to which the techno-scientific practices they worship have in fact only ever succeeded in multiplying the number of nature-society hybrids. The more they claim to have acquired pure knowledge of the human brain (cleansed of any contamination by culture or the dreaded psychology of common folks), the more these hybrids proliferate. This eliminativist attempt at (what Whitehead would call) a heroic feat of “explaining away” is itself little more than a form of political posturing, an attempt to crown oneself the victor of the progressive march toward a finally, truly Modern world. If anyone is confused, it is the eliminativists, since at least all the poor common people with their unscientific and pre-theoretical folk psychology escape the embarrassment of the blatant contradictions between theory and practice that plague the former. If our civilization is to have a future, it cannot be achieved by such polemical grandstanding. We need a more diplomatic method, which is precisely what an ecological and pluralistic ontology makes way for.

We can begin to ecologize our civilization by first ecologizing our philosophy. Ancient and modern philosophies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological philosophy acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to interpenetrate. An ecological philosophy is a pluralistic and historical philosophy. Historical because there is nothing—no creature and no relationship—that did not come to be in the course of evolutionary time. Historical becoming is not reserved for human society alone. Humanity is itself just the most recent chapter in a multi-billion year geostorical cascade of complex and compounding effects. Pluralistic because our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarms of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged organisms enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science. Value-experience replaces valueless matter as the most basic ontological category.

Much of what I want to say about Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative to eliminativist materialism will be filtered through Bruno Latour’s ontological pluralism, as spelled out in We Have Never Been Modern and more recently in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2012). I reviewed a chapter from this book (the chapter on materialism) as part of a co-investigation with other scholars here: https://aimegroup.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/chapter-4-learning-to-make-room-introducing-the-beings-of-reproduction-instituting-a-whole-new-diplomacy/ For those of you new to Latour, some of the jargon may be difficult to follow. Grant Maxwell and I exchanged a few blog posts comparing Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind with Latour’s earlier book We Have Never Been Modern. The exchange might provide a helpful introduction to Latour’s ideas if you want to dig deeper: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/03/10/reflections-on-latour-tarnas-and-the-misenchantment-of-the-world/ 

Notes for a Sunday Evening Cosmology Salon

If you’re a San Francisco local, I’ll be speaking with a few friends at Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Turk and Lyon this Sunday (4/27) at 7pm about community-building and the cosmopolitical importance of play in the aftermath of capitalism. Our salon-style panel discussion is part of a larger community festival in the Panhandle neighborhood.

Here is the blurb:

Cosmologies of Work and Play: Community in the Making  

Slavoj Zizek has recently suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. For those aware of the seriousness of the ecological and social crises of our time, imagining the end of the world may not seem all that difficult anymore. But perhaps it is not the world, but a world that is ending. For perhaps the first time in the modern age, the anti-cosmology of global capitalism is losing its ideological grip on the collective imagination. Exploitation of the human and nonhuman earth community for the private profit of a few has now become so intense, that apologists for capitalism can no longer divert our attention from the injustices it requires. Though the crises of our time are indeed serious, re-creating a more viable world will require at least as much play as it will work. Join us for a conversation building on anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s recently proposed “principle of ludic freedom,” which not only, as he suggests, “gives us ground to unthink the world around us,” but also provides a means of composing a more cosmologically grounded community from out of the compost of capitalism. 

And some of my notes: 

Why is cosmology relevant to community-building? Because cosmologizing is the most fundamental form of political action.

Nowadays, in our scientific age, when we think of cosmology what comes to mind are things like energy, matter, space-time, and so on. But for former pre-modern and contemporary non-modern thinkers, cosmology had/has also to do with more concrete realities, like the place of human values in the scope of the wider community of living beings on earth and in the sky. In the modern age, scientific cosmology became separated from its own ecological and political ground here on earth beneath the sky. The enchanted geocentric cosmology of the ancients was replaced by the abstract heliocentrism of mathematical physicists. This sort of modern conception of a static sun-centered universe obeying eternal laws is of course more than a century behind the discoveries of today’s scientific cosmology, with its evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. The problem nowadays is that physics has become so overwhelmingly mathematical that the average person has no hope of actually understanding what it is supposed to have revealed about the cosmos. Like with the medieval Church that only gave mass in Latin, contemporary science has grown too esoteric for the common person to consciously participate in. Science has come to treat the universe as though it had no fundamental connection with the presupposed values of civilized life. Science treats the universe as if the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and the rhythmic orbits of the planets overhead were entirely irrelevant to our individual and collective human experience. Though physicists have devised several stunning mathematical models that bear some resemblance to our measurements of the physical world, they have provided no functional cosmology to the human species. If we have a popular cosmology today, it is “market cosmology.” And if, as Thomas Berry suggested, a functional cosmology is synonymous with an adequate ecology (i.e., a theoretical and practical sense for how we are best to inhabit our habitat), then clearly market cosmology is dysfunctional. 

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Cosmopolitics! — Let us be done with the Modern constitution that bifurcates Nature from Society, Science from Politics, Facts from Values.

Cosmologizing is an integral activity, as much artistic, as religious, as scientific (I, We, It). 

Cosmology is always in the making, a fragile process of collective world-creation; always an ongoing activity, an ever-contested endeavor whose completion is only ever intimated and never finally assured. Cosmology is fiction crafted in public, political poetry (as Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”). 

“The creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead (Aims of Education). 

To cosmologize is to re-imagine how space and time are experientially distributed. To cosmologize is to hack the social imaginary, to reshape the imaginative background or unconscious speculative ground upon which the conscious values of a civilization are based. In the capitalist world, under “market cosmology,” space is property and time is on loan. That is to say, for most of us, time and space are made to seem scarce commodities. Our society’s cosmology divides up space into real estate and measures time as though human beings were perpetually “on the clock.” “Time is money,” as Ben Franklin put it. 

Are there any non-modern cosmological alternatives to market cosmology? Yes. Whitehead for one. 

“We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity.” -Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

For Whitehead, philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder is the vague feeling we all have all the time that hovers just beyond the horizon of workaday consciousness—the intuition of being embedded within the grand adventure of a larger universe. Wonder is the all-pervasive (and so largely taken for granted) sense we have of the wholeness and the totality of things which embraces us. Wonder is the sublime feeling of being awash in the value-experience of other living creatures, astonished by the insistence of their existence, the way they press in upon us and demand our care and attention. Philosophy is the attempt to respond to this equal parts erotic and eristic experience of the values of the universe streaming in to us from every direction. Philosophy is the attempt to become faithful to the earth and to the sky, to become responsible for the way our humanity joins in their ancient cosmic procession.

How are we going to re-imagine lived space and lived time after the spatiotemporal matrix of global capitalism dissolves? We must run experiments >>